Skip to main content

Maria, from the portfolio "Michael Riley Portraits 1984-1990", 1986 (printed 2013)

Michael Riley

inkjet print (frame: 41.5 cm x 43.4 cm depth 5.0 cm, image: 39.1 cm x 40.9 cm)

Maria, from the portfolio Michael Riley Portraits 1984-1990 1986 (printed 2013)

by Michael Riley (1960-2005)

inkjet print

Purchased 2013

Maria (Polly) Cutmore, a Gamilaraay woman, was Michael Riley’s first cousin. Michael’s mother and Maria’s father were siblings. Maria was born in the McMaster Ward of Moree Hospital, where all Aboriginal patients were segregated for treatment. She grew up in Moree, and Michael in Dubbo, but they were as close as siblings all their lives. They used to visit each other’s families regularly and see each other at their grandparents’ house at Mehi mission, Moree. As she grew up Maria attended a Catholic preschool for Aboriginal children run by the Daughters of Charity, and then the Aboriginal Mission School, which her parents and Michael’s had also attended.

When Maria moved to Sydney in the 1980s it felt quite safe, because she had friends and family there, engaged in different jobs and studying. At first, she and her sister Toni lived in Glebe while Michael lived in Annandale. Maria worked as a clerk for Aboriginal Employment.

Later, when she and Toni were living in Newtown, they were still in their dressing gowns one Sunday morning when Michael arrived. He said he’d take them for a drive and they jumped straight in the car, eager for a stickybeak around the area. They ended up in his studio in Balmain. Amongst others, he took this photograph of Maria there.

She thought little more about the portrait session. Certainly, she never dreamed that her picture would become famous. After a time living in Melbourne, she went back to Moree and was working as the community liaison officer at a Catholic clinic when one of the Pius nuns told her her picture was in the Bulletin. She was shocked; because the Bulletin was a magazine in which she wouldn’t have expected to see a photograph of any Aboriginal person, let alone herself. When she began to study social work in Milperra, she was taken aback when she saw the portrait hanging in the foyer of the institution’s Aboriginal unit. Next time she saw it was in the home of a friend in Broome, and she was amazed to see it had travelled so far. Eventually, it appeared in bus stops in Sydney to advertise an exhibition. Various family members were amused and comforted at the same time to see her face in Sydney.

Maria returned permanently to Moree, where she says nothing much has changed for Aboriginal people. Both Aboriginal and white people who took low-paying jobs like chipping cotton are dying from cancer. She speaks frequently of her concerns for country: the lack of water, the impact of mining. In particular, she lobbies for acknowledgement and meaningful recognition of the 1837-1838 massacres at Waterloo Creek.

In Michael Riley’s photograph Maria wears a necklace that belonged to her partner at the time, David Prosser (who was the sitter in Riley’s last series, They call me niigarr 1995). Maria and David are still friends, and he still has the necklace.

People still ask Maria about the picture, which delights her.

Collection: National Portrait Gallery
Purchased 2013

Accession number: 2013.50.3

Currently on display: Gallery Seven (Ian Potter Gallery)

Copyright image request form
Request a digital copy of an image for publication

Artist and subject

Michael Riley (age 26 in 1986)

Polly Cutmore

Subject professions

Performing arts

© National Portrait Gallery 2020
King Edward Terrace, Parkes
Canberra, ACT 2600, Australia

Phone +61 2 6102 7000
Fax +61 2 6102 7001
ABN: 54 74 277 1196
The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Ngunnawal people, the traditional custodians of the land upon which the NPG stands.